I was speaking recently to a group of mid-level safety professionals about redirecting unwanted behaviors and making change within individual and systemic safety systems. I had one participant who was particularly passionate about his views on changing the behaviors of workers. According to him, one cannot be expected to change behavior or work incident free without at least threatening the use of punitive actions. In his own words, “you cannot expect them to work safely if you can’t punish them for not working safely.” He was also quite vocal in his assertion that it is of little use to determine which contextual factors are driving an unsafe behavior. Again quoting him, “why do I need to know why they did it unsafely? If they can’t get it done, find somebody that can.”
I meet managers like this from time-to-time and I’m immediately driven to wonder what it must be like to work for such a person. How could a person like this have risen in the ranks of his corporate structure? How could such an idiot...oh,wait. Am I not making the same mistakes that I now, silently scold him for? You see, when people do things that we see as evil, stupid, or just plain wrong, there are two incredibly common and powerful principles at play. The first principle is called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) and, if allowed to take over one’s thought process, it will make a tyrant out of the most pleasant of us. The FAE says that when we see people do things that we believe to be undesirable, we attribute it to them as being flawed in some way or to them having bad intentions. They are stupid, evil, heartless, or just plain incompetent. If we assume these traits to be the driving factor of an unsafe act and we have organizational power, we will likely move to punish this bad actor for their evil doings. After all, somebody so (insert evil adjective here) deserves to be punished. The truth is that most people are good and decent people who just want to do a good job.
This leads us to our second important principle, Local Rationality. Local Rationality says that when good and decent people do things that are unsafe or break policies or rules, they usually do it without any ill-intent. In fact, because of their own personal context, they do it because it makes sense to them to do it that way; hence the term “local rationality”. As a matter of fact, had you or I been in their situation, given the exact same context, chances are we would have done the same thing. It isn’t motive that normally needs to be changed, it’s context.
With this knowledge, let’s look back at the two questions from our Safety Manager.
- “How can I be expected to change behavior or work incident free, without threatening to to punish the wrong-doers?” and
- “Why do I need to know why they did it unsafely? If they can’t get it done, find somebody that can.”
Once we understand that, in general, people don’t knowingly and blatantly do unsafe things or break rules, rather that they do it because of a possibly flawed work system, e.g. improper equipment, pressure from others, lack of training, etc., then we have the ability to calmly have a conversation to determine why they did what they did. In other words, we determine the context that drove the person to rush, cut corners, use improper tools, etc. Once we know why they did it, we then have a chance of creating lasting change by changing the contextual factors that led to the unsafe act.
Your key take-aways:
- When you see what you think is a pile of stupidity, be curious as to where it came from. Otherwise, you may find yourself stepping in it yourself.
- Maybe it wasn’t stupidity at all. Maybe it was just the by-product of the context in which they work. Find a fix together and you may both come out smelling like roses.